In what amounts to the most ambitious programme of regional cruises ever offered by a mainland British cruise operator, Cruise and Maritime Voyages will offer departures from no less than fourteen UK departure ports aboard five different ships for the 2018 season.
Line voyages to and from South Africa and Australia for the premium range Astor begin and end in Tilbury, as does the entire 2018 season of cruises offered by new flagship, Columbus, currently on line for a scheduled UK debut in June of 2017.
New to the 2018 programme is a series of seven cruises, departing from both Portsmouth and Poole aboard the retained Astoria. This series of cruises extends the programme for the former, 1948 built Stockholm right through until almost the end of 2018.
Meanwhile, fleet mainstays, Magellan and the veteran Marco Polo will offer a series of regional departures from around the UK on itineraries ranging from two to fifteen nights, plus the occasional overnight, repositioning mini cruise.
The full list of UK departure ports is: Belfast, Bristol (both from the port and Avonmouth), Cardiff, Dundee, Greenock for Glasgow, Harwich, Hull, Liverpool, Newcastle Port of Tyne, Newport, Poole, Portsmouth, Rosyth for Edinburgh, and London Tilbury.
It is also worth noting that the company provides many coach links that coincide with sailings from their various ports around the United Kingdom, making for easy connections with all the different cruises on offer.
In the main, Cruise and Maritime Voyages sail to Norway, the Baltic, Greenland and Spitzbergen, plus the Canary Islands in peak season. Shoulder season sees some attractive, short European coastal and city cruises, with winter heralding a series of short Christmas market jaunts. There is also a handful of cruises that take in the stunning, winter time Norwegian Lights.
The CMV fleet is, for the most part intimate, adult’s only ships, though some high season sailings aboard the new flagship Columbus will offer some child friendly sailings for 2017.
Early year sailings now include a mammoth, round the world circuit from Tilbury, an exotic Caribbean round trip, and an extensive itinerary that embraces the highlights of the Amazon.
Over two world wars, the vast body of water known as Scapa Flow has been the main base for the Royal Navy. If all of the big decisions in those fateful conflicts were taken in Whitehall, then most of them were carried through from those fast northern waters, lying off the north east coast of Scotland.
Almost completely ringed in by islands, and with a series of old merchant ships eventually deliberately sunk to block hostile access from the gaps in between, Scapa Flow has as a big a place in British naval history as, say, Portsmouth, Malta or Alexandria. It was the only safe place where the capital ships of the Royal Navy could gather in sufficient strength to confront the Germans, if and when they ever chose to come out into the North Sea or the North Atlantic.
Scapa Flow is a bleak landscape of low, rolling hills, dry stone walls, diving gulls, sheep, and grazing cattle. There were almost no leisure facilities for the men sequestered there, often for months on end. For the sailors of the RN, being posted to a capital ship based at Scapa was only mildly more appealing than being billetted in Alcatraz. Boredom and routine were very much the order of the day, week in and out.
But certain moments in history lit up the Flow-sometimes quite literally- to such an extent that the mere mention of the place evokes the ghosts of legend past.
At the end of World War One, the entire German High Seas Fleet was interned at Scapa Flow, awaiting news of its fate while the victorious Allies squabbled over details at the peace treaty at Versailles.
In July 1919, rumours began to surface among the interned German sailors that a large part of their fleet would be handed over to France. Rather than submit to such an indignity, the entire German fleet- battleships, battle cruisers, cruisers, destroyers and auxiliary vessels-committed mass hara kiri, scuttling themselves in the waters of the Flow before the British guards could intervene. For decades, their hulks littered the sea bed. Even today, coal washed ashore from the remaining wrecks sometimes burns bright in Scapa hearths on long winter nights.
The Home Fleet returned to the Flow again in September of 1939, when war once again blackened the skies. Then, in an act of incredible daring, a German U boat managed to sneak through the defences of Scapa Flow on a raw October evening. Surrounded by a plethora of unsuspecting targets, the captain of U47, Gunther Prien, slammed a trio of torpedoes into the nearest battleship.
Aboard HMS Royal Oak, most of the crew had already been stood down from the daily routine of cleaning and maintaining the ship. Most of them were down below, eating, relaxing, playing cards, reading or writing, when the side of the ship burst in on them. The Royal Oak capsized with frightening speed, most of her crew simply overwhelmed by a deluge of freezing Orcadian seawater as it surged through the shattered hull. The ship sank within minutes, taking more than eight hundred of her crew down with her.
In real terms, the loss of the ship herself was not such a disaster. At twenty five years old, the Royal Oak was almost at the end of her active career. None the less, it happened at a time when literally every ship was desperately needed. But the loss of her highly trained crew- combined with the sheer shock engendered by the U-boat actually having penetrated the Flow’s defences as they stood- was a terrible blow, and a profound wake up call to all concerned.
Just eighteen months later, a pair of great, grey shapes stole across the waters of Scapa Flow, en route to one of the most epic encounters in naval history.
Standing looking over the vast, sunlit expanse of the Flow, it was all too easy for me to visualise the Hood and Prince of Wales moving slowly downstream. I could almost hear the hiss and clatter of the anchors, rattling through the hawse pipes as they came up from the bed of the Flow, on the evening of May 22nd, 1941.
It was all too easy to imagine the excitement of their young crews, the adrenaline running through them at the prospect of sudden action. Word had reached Scapa Flow that the new German battleship, Bismarck, had put to sea, intent on attacking the vital North Atlantic convoys. She had to be intercepted and stopped at any cost.
The sailing of Hood and Prince of Wales from Scapa Flow on that fateful evening in May, 1941, marked the opening chess moves on the British side of the board. For those on board the two British ships, the Bismarck was a completely unknown quantity. Well trained and battle hardened as many of them were, those lads would have been less than human not to have felt at least a twinge of uncertainty about what lay beyond their safe harbour.
It is almost too poignant for me to take in that the last sight of land those poor souls on Hood ever had, would have been of the same promontory that I now stood on, on a warm summer day in June, 2016. It is not only the battlefields of Verdun and the Somme that have their ghosts; there is something indefinably sad about the fabled waters of Scapa Flow, even to this very day.
Scapa Flow is bleak, barren, and indescribably majestic during the long summer days. Waves of gorse and fresh heather flutter along the sides of dry stone walls that slope right down to the sparkling expanse of the Flow, almost devoid of any kind of shipping these days.
If you happen to be in Kirkwall, the best way to get to Scapa Flow is to take a local bus from the station that adjoins the local tourist information centre. The journey takes around 25-30 minutes, and you should alight at the post office in the small village of St. Margaret’s Hope. Of course, you could also take a taxi.
This gorgeous little nook is worth the journey in it’s own right. But once there, take a left turn and walk up and past the large wind turbine ahead of you, and you will reach that incredible vantage point over Scapa Flow itself.
Like me, you might be moved to pay your respects to all of those brave lads, those who sailed from these secluded, sheltered waters, never to return.
I made my way back into St. Margaret’s Hope, and raised a pint in memory of them all; whether from HMS Vanguard, Royal Oak, Glorious, Ardent, Acasta, Hood, Prince of Wales, or HMS Hampshire. I went to the Murray Arms hotel, a beautiful little watering hole where I found the locals to be as warm and friendly as the cider was cold and thirst quenching.
In terms of memorials to the Royal Oak, there is a compact, but truly moving tribute housed in an enclave of St. Magnus’ cathedral, the impressive, 12th century red sandstone construction that stands mere minutes from the harbour itself.
There, frozen in time and suffused in memories, stands the bell lifted from the great battleship herself. It is flanked by a pair of flags, also retrieved from the wreck. Anyone in the cathedral will direct you to the chancel in which it stands.
After leaving Lerwick, the Marco Polo stood out into the Atlantic, heading north west towards our next stop in the Faroe Islands. The ship rolled gently in a series of long, gunmetal coloured swells that ushered us ever further north. And a magnificent sunset seemed to augur the promise of a bright and sunny day on the morrow.
Wrong. Very wrong.
Daylight found the Marco Polo tied up, on schedule, at the village of Kollafjordur. a twenty minute run by regular shuttle bus into the town of Torshavn. With a population of some 20,000 people in total, Torshavn is often claimed to be the smallest capital city in the world.
Kollafjodur itself nestles at the head of a long, winding valley, flanked on both sides by jagged escarpments in forty shades of green that tumble right down to the waters of the fjord itself. On a sunny day, I imagine it would be an exhilarating place.
Alas, this was not a sunny day.
Thick, icy mist hung like a baleful wraith all along the tops of the valley. Just two days from actual mid summer, I found myself swaddled in four layers of clothing as I took a quick walk along the banks of the fjord itself.
But what magnificent scenery unfolded as I strolled this silent landscape, one seemingly frozen in both time and space. Small, gently sloping pebble beaches played host to gaunt, brightly coloured small boats that seemed desperate to shelter inland from the biting wind. Here and there, small houses in shades of rust red and blue hunkered at the edges of the fjord, their roofs coated in thick turf grass.
Long abandoned boat houses stood with gaping, exposed beams, some of them still draped in old fishing nets. Here and there, launch tracks for local boats snaked down to the water’s edge. All along the fjord, small piers poked out into the water itself like so many skeletal fingers; some built from steel, others- clearly much older- fashioned from ancient, weathered stone. The sense of stillness was almost overpowering.
Heading on a local bus into Torshavn allowed me to take in the vast, majestic sweep of the valley. Dried up trails left by long vanished waterfalls sprinkled the hinterland like so many spider’s webs. A long, harshly lit, seemingly endless tunnel engulfed us as it snaked through the sides of sheer granite mountains. Actual road traffic was almost non existent.
And then, from this harsh, majestic vista, the slow, rolling outlines of large town gradually emerged; a jumbled clutter of brightly coloured clapboard houses, piled in ramshackle layers up toward a central, focal point. This, then, was Torshavn.
The Faroe Islands to these days belong to Denmark. Essentially, they are a cluster of eighteen small, rocky isles, flung like random specks into the harsh, menacing embrace of the open Atlantic ocean. The look and feel of these islands is very different to any of the other, Scottish islands that our cruise would embrace.
Torshavn- the name translates literally to ‘Thor’s Harbour’- is often claimed to be the world’s smallest capital city. On this freezing, fog shrouded Sunday, it almost felt like the world’s most deserted. I strolled in a state of mild disbelief through the winding alleys and flower strewn streets of what seemed to be a ghost town. Almost everything seemed to be closed.
I wandered around the battlements of Havnar Skanski, an ancient harbour fortress built back in 1580 to protect both the port and the main town. It shears above the town like some jagged, moss topped molar, studded here and there with ancient naval guns that have simply frozen, both in place and time. Their barrels still point with ghostly menace out over the sound. In all likelihood, not one of them ever fired a shot in practice, let alone in action.
The harbour itself is a tidy, trim little confection, with row upon row of perfectly manicured small boats that looked like so many colorful insects, forever preserved in aspic. There were stout, no nonsense fishing trawlers and a local, inter island ferry with wisps of smoke curling upwards from it’s brace of stubby funnels. Wooden trestle tables, empty on this day, were liberally draped across stone cobbled quaysides. On a warm summer night, I suspect the place would be quite magical in the eerie half light.
And suddenly there were people, too. Huddling across tables that flanked the glass walled bistros and restaurants that ran parallel to the quay; even a few brave souls walking their dogs here and there,
Carrying on, I wandered upwards through winding lanes of immaculate, flower draped clapboard houses in shades of blue, red and canary yellow. Brightly coloured swings, slides and roundabouts sat like so many lazy butterflies, draped across empty lawns.
From the summit, the long, expansive sprawl of Torshavn was a magnificent reveal; the big ferry sat centre stage, looking like nothing more than a wind up toy. Skeletal yacht masts barely splintered the skyline. Below me, the serried, snaking tiers of houses looked like something from a Monopoly board, rearranged in winding rows by some incredibly patient child.
Back down at waterfront level, the area called Tinganes is the seat of the old Faroese government. It comprises a fascinating brew of jumbled buildings, painted in a deep terracotta red, with grass roofs. Some of them are coated with black tar, with many dating back more than five hundred years.
The overall effect is instantly reminiscent of the Bryggen on the famous Bergen waterfront, but the actual site itself is even older, dating back as far as 850 AD. From them, winding alleyways and rows of stone steps form a series of haphazard routes back down to the broad reaches of the harbour itself.
In many ways, seeing Torshavn on a Sunday proved something of a blessing. Shorn of the usual, week long hustle and bustle of domestic shoppers, commuters and, yes- sightseers- it was much, much easier to take in the sheer beauty and contours of this northern gem. Easier to appreciate the near perfectly symmetrical allure of that waterfront. And, most of all, to actually get some kind of an appreciation- a feel for how the places once must have been-when the harbour played host to Viking longships, rather than ferries and fishing boats.
Back aboard the Marco Polo, I gradually thawed out with the help of some truly welcome mulled wine. We began the slow, stately procession down Kollafjordur, past rocky headlands, and then out once again into the open Atlantic.
But now our course was set firmly to the south. Over the might, the Marco Polo shrugged off the cold embrace of those secluded Nordic hinterlands, and set a course for the Orkney Islands, just off the north east coast of Scotland.
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